Seeing red

Seeing red

FOCUS readers are in for a treat! Our newly appointed UK correspondent, SHAUN CONNORS, is travelling up a storm, taking to the wheel of a weird and wonderful assortment of vehicles, especially for our reading pleasure. He starts out with an icon, the Routemaster bus, a vehicle better known to South Africans as the “London bus”.

Train spotters are a well-known breed, bus spotters somewhat less so, but they do exist. I know this as, for a short while, I teetered on the edge of becoming one… Back in the mid-1970s, I was flogging ill-fitting business suits in a men’s clothing shop for a living, and for this privilege would daily commute 50 miles

(80 km) between Fakenham (the small rural market town in which I lived) and Norwich (the big city…) on public transport, and, specifically, Eastern Counties Service 452.

Even then I was into anything big with a diesel engine, and confess I preferred the commuting to the job! The red, vinyl-covered seats were comfortable in a perverse sort of way, and the diesel fumes that seeped into the lower saloon of the double-decked Bristol VRs operated by Eastern Counties were – to me anyway – preferable to the over-powering perfume of that woman from Debenhams’ department store Max Factor counter who insisted on sitting near me…

And I’m pretty sure I was the only passenger who knew his “Bristols” (UK slang for breasts – Ed), being able to differentiate a VR from an LH, or even an RE… I also remember considering bus driving as a career move. After all, bumbling around the countryside, picking the occasional passenger along the way had to be a step up from working in Norwich’s version of Are You Being Served’s Grace Brothers… “I’m free…”

I’m not 100% sure what happened to my bus driving idea, but think Mrs Thatcher’s privatisation plan for public transport, which didn’t go down at all well with the then very left-wing Comrade Connors, had more than a little something to do with it. As for becoming a bus spotter, well, witnessing even the drivers mocking a pair I saw at Norwich bus station one morning, was enough to put me off buying a folding chair, anorak, woolly hat, thermos and spiral-bound notepad for ever.

With that all revealed, it’s perhaps surprising that it took me 25 years to get around to driving a bus. Perhaps… But decision to do it made, it had to be a “real” bus, an icon, and there really was only one candidate, the Routemaster.

As much a part of London as Big Ben, I remember reading back in 2002 of London’s mayor (‘Red’ Ken Livingstone) extolling the virtues of retaining conductors on London buses, and saying the 50-year-old Routemaster would be around for at least another 10 years. It didn’t take me long to find out that, like every other politician that breathes oxygen, he’d lied.

In a truly glorious affair witnessed by thousands (81% of Londoners didn’t want the Routemaster to go), the last Routemaster ran on Route 159, Marble Arch to Streatham Station, on 9 December 2005. Okay, 16 examples do remain on two token so-called heritage routes, and primarily for overweight American tourists, but the simple truth of it is the now not-so-red Ken somehow managed to get clean away with an act of cultural vandalism.

Londoners got their revenge, though, and on 4 May 2008, not-so-red Ken was booted out of office, to be replaced by Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (Boris Johnson). Johnson pledged to reinstate Routemaster buses if elected mayor. It won’t surprise you to read that we’re still waiting for that to happen…

Researching for this article, I read somewhere the Routemaster suffered from being bracketed with the Beefeater, the policeman’s helmet and the Royal Family; something that is quaint, picturesque and good for the tourists, but not really much use any more. The truth is, that’s a load of bollocks, with none of the assorted official reasons for its demise actually stacking up under scrutiny.

It’s certainly not age or ecomentalism that defeated the Routemaster, as in the early 1990s, they were fully refurbished with new interiors and (operator-dependent) Cummins, IVECO or Scania engines, some meeting Euro 2, even Euro 3. And on their demise the engineering director of the company operating the bulk of the 500 or so then remaining said, they could have gone on for another 10 years without difficulty.

And while not baby buggy-, arthritis- or disabled-friendly, even those trying to turn the planet into a giant wheelchair ramp cannot argue with the simple fact that the bulk of all Routemasters was shadowed by accessible “Health & Safety-approved” low-floor buses. And did anybody take note that out of 42 million bus journeys per week in London, fewer than 7 000 are made by wheelchair users? My calculator didn’t have enough zeros to work out the 0.000% that equates out to!

Even the pensioner-friendly pressure group, Help The Aged, admitted that old people preferred buses with conductors, pointing out the one-man bendy buses replacing the Routemasters may carry 140 people (at least 60 more than a Routemaster), but with 91 of those passengers standing, it has one-third fewer seats. You can’t board a bendy bus without having bought a ticket from a seldom-functioning machine at the stop, and have you ever tried asking a machine a question? Oh, and let’s not forget about the health and safety claim that people fall of the rear platform of the Routemaster and get killed or injured? Okay, so whose fault would that be then?

Seeing redSo, with all but 16 of London’s Routemaster’s gone, with them went my idea of driving On The Buses-style (“On the Buses” was a British situation comedy created by Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney that was broadcast in the UK from 1969 to 1973) on the number 19 from Finsbury Park to Battersea Bridge, or so I thought. Turns out that Ensignbus bought 400 of the 500 remaining Routemasters and had a handful left after selling the majority to a never-ending queue of would-be private owners.

Ensignbus is the UK’s largest used bus dealer, selling over a 1 000 examples a year. They also operate their own buses, maintain and convert buses, and reckon that if it can be done with a bus, they’ve probably done it. They were happy for me to a drive a Routemaster, but maybe not between Finsbury Park and Battersea Bridge, or anywhere else in central London for that matter! I’d have to make do with a spin round the local trading estate.

The Routemaster is often cited as the best bus ever designed by London Transport, designed by Londoners (including drivers) for Londoners, and that’s probably correct. Originally powered by a 115-hp AEC AV590 9.6-l diesel coupled to an AEC direct selection/automatic four-speed gearbox, the revolutionary Routemaster also featured (and remember, it was designed in the early 1950s…) front and rear sub-frames, rather than a conventional chassis, independent front suspension, power steering and power-hydraulic braking. At around 7.5 t, the Routemaster is still about 2 t lighter than modern equivalent vehicles and is more economical, its 8 mpg being 2.5 mpg more than the bendy buses that replaced it.

So, what’s it like to drive a Routemaster? I’m no bus expert, but everything about the Routemaster just seems so right. Given, I’ve seen more instrumentation on a go-cart and the “no-vision” mirrors probably explain why bus drivers adopt an indicate-and-pull-out policy, but without doubt it has to be the easiest – and most natural – thing of this size (and age) I’ve ever driven. And that I suspect is not a bad thing. Remember those hoards of private owners previously mentioned? Well, as long as they’re over 21, carry no more than eight passengers and meet a few other piddly Department of Transport rules, they can drive a Routemaster on a motor car licence…

Bus-time reading
As part of my research for this piece, I read a book called “The Bus We Loved”, by Travis Elborough. It really was a very interesting and enjoyable read.

If anorak-clad notepad, pen and camera-sporting people huddled together at the end of a railway station platform are labelled train spotters, I’d guess that similarly attired folks hanging around the local bus terminus should be labelled bus spotters. Whatever, both groups are slightly suspect, shunned mildly by a society that’s not sure if they’re afflicted, dangerous or simply just not normal. Whatever normal may be. Some accept them, some think they should be neutered to prevent reproduction, most just mock them openly.

I’m stereotyping, I think, but they really do all wear hand-knitted tank tops, polyester trousers two inches too short over white socks and cheap grey shoes, National Health specs and have their annual hair cut at a seedy “anything for the weekend, sir” gentleman’s barber. And if they don’t live at home with an elderly mother, they have a bride purchased from Asia, or maybe Russia or Poland.

Imagine then my fear when, after driving a Routemaster bus, I developed this irrepressible longing to learn more, a lot more, about what was to London what the Gondola is to Venice. I started out surfing the Internet late at night, but remembering what happened to poor old Pete Townsend, and fearing that my activities could be being scrutinised in some way, Big Brother-style somewhere, stopped.

Plan B was to buy a book to satisfy my craving, and this is it, “The Bus We Loved”. Described by one reviewer as “what could be the first moorish bus book” and with the author himself almost apologetically (for fear of reprisal?) pointing out early on that it’s not an anorak’s book, it’s not full of chassis and engine numbers, production dates and all that sort of stuff the spotters drool over. It’s a little more cultural, it’s almost social commentary, it’s a taste of the times as much as it is a history of this London icon.

So to a real spotter this book would probably be Nicorette, not nicotine, methadone, not heroin, and that’s why I felt safe buying it. Although, for fear of ridicule, read it (10 minutes each morning) in the bathroom at home. It’s great, it’s a witty and light-hearted read that I’d whole-heartedly recommend to anybody even remotely interested in this iconic piece of road transport history. It probably isn’t for anoraks; in fact, I suspect they’d be a little disappointed at the almost total lack of anoraky stuff in its 192 pages.

As a negative, I did find the almost non-stop (express) leap from 1968 (the year the last Routemaster rolled of the production line) to 2004 a bit of a surprise, but what bothered me most of all was when I’d finished the read, I felt short-changed. I wanted to know more, I actually wanted some of those facts and figures, some of those anoraky things. Oh dear, as is so often the case, the Nicorette, the methadone, the substitute, no matter how good it may be, just didn’t work. Help me somebody. Please…

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